The graphic in this poster is made up of spontaneous doodlings in Arabic.
They consist of political mottos, poems, notes, exhortations, and slogans
such as “Revolution Until Victory,” “United by Blood,”
and “Palestine the Beautiful.” Rough, organic depictions of
a clenched fist, representing determination, and a hand in salute, representing
admiration, dot the graphic, which is done in the Palestinian national
colors of green, black, white, and red.
During the early morning hours of March 21, 1968, an IDF column made up of as many as ten thousand infantry supported by armored units crossed over the Allenby Bridge into Jordan. Their objective was the Al Karameh Palestinian refugee camp located alongside the town of the same name and, more specifically, the Palestinian military and political headquarters based inside the camp.
The Palestinians were still reeling from the spectacular defeat the combined Arab armies had suffered at the hands of Israel’s air and land forces only nine months earlier during the June War, June 6-12, 1967 (labeled by Israel the Six Day War).
Integrated into the various Arab armies, Palestinian military units had fought as part of the United Arab Command (UAC). After the cease-fire, the Palestinians had withdrawn eastward to the Al Karameh refugee camp to lick their wounds and regroup.
The Israelis had a very limited objective: to wipe out the Palestinian political leadership in Al Karameh. They did not want to engage the Jordanian army, whose national space they would be invading.
Consequently, they wanted to clearly telegraph their plans to King Hussein of Jordan, so that Jordanian military units could re-deploy away from the battle zone. Therefore the Israelis mobilized the IDF invasion force out in the open, hoping Hussein would see them, put two-and-two together, and remove his troops from the area around Al Karameh.
This tactic, while logical on the surface, backfired. According to several accounts, three days prior to the battle, Jordanian intelligence tipped off Al Fatah that the Israelis were preparing to invade. Once alerted, the Palestinians evacuated civilians, dug in, set ambushes, and waited for the IDF.
The actual battle of Al Karameh is utterly devoid of any real tactical or strategic military significance for either side. For the Israelis, no new territory was seized; no bridges, railheads, airports, or crossroads were destroyed; no major Palestinian leadership figures were assassinated; no threats had been neutralized and no significant caches of enemy weapons were found or destroyed. Moreover, no political concessions, from either Jordan or the Palestinians, were garnered and no new Israeli heroes emerged.
Indeed, the battle was a net loss for Israel in the sense that it squandered the IDF’s hard-won aura of invincibility, ignited an unprecedented firestorm of international criticism of Israel, spawned a global network of Palestine solidarity committees, and gave rise to a new sense of pride and nationalism among Palestinians.
For the Palestinians, the battle at Al Karameh represented less a classical military victory than an opportunity to separate their military force out from the mass of Arab military units that had been humiliated in the June War. It also was the stimulus for them to establish an independent military identity, one committed exclusively to the liberation of Palestine. Al Karameh’s main impact, however, was psychological: it provided a desperately needed morale boost to the floundering and rudderless Palestinian resistance movement and a near-miraculous infusion of Palestinian, Arab, and international solidarity.
The Palestinian leaders in Al Karameh — Yasser Arafat (Abu Amar), Khalil Al Wazir (Abu Jihad), and Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyyad) — could have had no idea that their decision to resist the IDF would generate the outcomes it did. Rather, like the out-gunned fighters of the Alamo, the Warsaw Ghetto, Hamburger Hill, and a host of history’s other desperately hopeless confrontations, they fought fueled by national pride, determination, and resignation.
Al Karameh broke a spell: unlike in the June War, it was the Israelis who withdrew from the battlefield and it was the Palestinians who held the ground at the end of the day. There was no demoralization, no scenes of mass surrender, and no endless lines of prisoners. Rather, Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers lay wrecked and abandoned among the still-smoking alleys of the camp. Official Israeli casualties figures were twenty-nine dead and about sixty wounded.
In the event, a number of Jordanian armor and artillery units supportive of Palestinian aims did participate and played a major or minor part in the battle, depending upon which account one reads.
Almost before the shooting stopped, the exploits of the Palestinians at Al Karameh filled the world’s airwaves. The outcome of the battle represented an unanticipated release from the burden of shame produced by the June War and the response of the Palestinian and Arab masses was spontaneous, exultant, and irreversible. Israel and Jordan both mounted campaigns aimed at debunking the heroic aspects of the battle emphasized by the Palestinians and their international allies, but to little avail.
The battle’s collateral damage was significant: Al Karameh refugee camp was completely destroyed and most of the town of Al Karameh lay in ruins. Hundreds of Palestinians fedayeen (Arabic: commandos) had been killed and casualties among civilians also ran in the hundreds. But the seismic demoralization of the Arab world caused by the defeats of the June War was, at the very least, temporarily lifted.
The battle had other unintended consequences:
The battle of Al Karameh illustrates that events in the Middle East — particularly those related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — can have unpredictable and unforeseeable implications. At Al Karameh, Israel planned a swift, surgical operation to remove a perceived threat to its eastern flank. Instead, it rolled into an ambush set by desperate men and revived a near-dead opponent.© 2003 Liberation Graphics. All Rights Reserved.
Questions for A New
1) This poster commemorates a battle, yet is hauntingly beautiful. Why is that? What might have been the intentions of the artist?
2) What are the main differences between Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian accounts of the battle of Al Karameh? What explains these differences?
3) Since 1948, Israeli and Palestinian military forces have faced off in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria as well as in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. What does this geographically fluid spiral of combat reveal about the nature of this conflict?
4) What impact did the battle of Al Karameh have on U.S-Israeli, U.S.-Palestinian, and U.S.-Jordanian relations?
Please send us your questions and comments (English only please!)
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